Take Rabbi Lichtenstein's legacy at full depth

Not every rabbi is one of the Gedolei Yisrael. Rabbi Lichtenstein, who expressed this and articulated his belief in da'at Torah, was one himself. Read the essence of his teachings here.

Menachem Ben-Mordechai,

Menachem Ben Mordechai
Menachem Ben Mordechai
INN:MB

Those we esteem we should try to understand.

In a recent shiur on “The Proper Attitudes of Our Community and Our Children Toward Gedolei Yisrael,” Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, shlita quoted from an essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l:

“…I find the alternative view, that gedolei Torah are professional experts whose authority and wisdom can ordinarily be regarded as confined to the area of their technical proficiency, simply inconceivable. Our abiding historical faith in the efficacy of Torah as a pervasive, ennobling, informing, and enriching force dictates adoption of the concept of da'at Torah in some form or measure.”

Rabbi Lebowitz remarked, “If I took away the name and I asked you to read the paragraph, you would say, ‘Ok, that probably comes from the Aguda world.’ It does not. It comes from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing).”

Indeed, while he possessed immense secular knowledge with a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard, Rav Lichtenstein’s essential worldview was intensely traditional and at odds with some key modern social trends. In pursuit of a richer appreciation of this gadol, let us take a deeper look at the moral legacy his writings offer us.     

As early as 1966, Rav Lichtenstein observed in the context of Torah u-Madda:

“To place the full burden of integrating two worlds upon the individual student is neither fair to him nor in the best general interest of Halachic Judaism. For the simple fact is that in most cases, the student either cannot or will not do it, with the result that, assuming that he remains Orthodox, he either withdraws into a sort of observant secularism—a life largely motivated by secular values although regulated by religious norms—or retreats into a traditional bastion in order to avoid confronting the contemporary world altogether. These alternatives are by no means of equal merit. The first, even if sincere, is a shallow formalism while the second constitutes a genuine path to avodat Hashem, which despite its lack of sophistication, I prize most highly. Simple piety and naïve faith may lack a certain dimension, but whether or not they take cognizance of contemporary trends, they are of infinite moment.”

Consistent with his rejection of “observant secularism,” Rav Lichtenstein later rejected what he called the essence of modern secular culture with the following assessment:

“The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective… From a religious point of view, of course, eilu va-eilu divrei avoda zara—both approaches are idolatrous. Here one establishes individual man as an idol, and the one idolizes, in humanistic terms, humanity as a whole. The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.”

Likewise, Rav Lichtenstein viewed the drive to separate religion from state as hostile to religious life, writing in 1966:

”A government that is deeply enmeshed in all spheres of life and yet operates in a purely secular manner is not just religiously inert. Beyond a certain point, omission is commission. To exercise significant control over society while remaining aloof from religion is, in effect, to oppose it.”

Rav Lichtenstein emphasized concerning Israel:

“Secularization ought not take place, and it cannot take place--unless, that is, we are ready to dismantle the community of Israel as it has historically evolved and as it at present exists. For we must not underestimate the scope of the secularist's position. He does not simply argue for a secular state. He advocates a secular society...Not only the organs of government but the fabric of Israeli society, ultimately the very fiber of the Jew himself, are to be gradually secularized.”

On the practical effects of this position, consider Rav Lichtenstein’s view of abortion, which has universal relevance through the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach. Rav Lichtenstein again grounded himself in a rejection of secular premises:

“I mentioned…the prevalent secular conception of one’s ‘ownership’ of himself. One hears this argument in various contexts, especially with regard to the question of abortion: it’s a woman’s right, it’s her own body, she can do what she wants, etc. Years back, I was asked to testify before a subcommittee of the Knesset which dealt with abortions. Among other things, I mentioned that, leaving aside the significant question of whether it is the woman’s body only or whether the fetus has some rights as well, there is a more fundamental problem. Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception. It rests on a secular assumption that, as it were, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’ (Yechezkel 29:3), as if we are the source of our own existence and therefore the masters of our own being. This is assuredly not the case. In absolute terms, a person does not own himself.”

In subsequent reflections, Rav Lichtenstein criticized Orthodox insularity and non-judgmental attitudes on this and similar matters:

“Abortion on demand is a moral abomination, whoever the fetus may be. We have much to learn from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who took up the cudgels for a modicum of prayer in the public schools...To care, morally, is, in all likelihood, to judge. I am not at all certain that those who advocate a non-judgmental stance practice what they preach. They tend to be quite intolerant of intolerance--i.e, of the violation of what they regard as a value; and if they are indeed non-judgmental about homosexuality or abortion, it is because they regard these as morally neutral. Yahadut, however, does not preach ethical distance at all. As a system, grounded in Halakhah and general morality, it rejects...the relativism upon which much of the abdication of judgment rests; and, hence, it clearly encourages the individual Jew or Jewess to adopt a position vis-a-vis developments in the world around them.”

Against related egalitarian trends, Rav Lichtenstein affirmed transcendent Judaic principles:

"Normative absolutes are the essence of Torah and our status as commanded spiritual beings the bedrock of our relation to the Ribbono Shel Olam. Consequently, in relating to egalitarian ideology, there is no alternative to clearly recognizing and candidly asserting that, as a system, it is, for us, wholly untenable...[W]e cannot encounter egalitarianism on its turf but, regardless of what is currently politically correct, must rather confront it with our own truth."

Rav Lichtenstein similarly stressed elsewhere:

"...our traditional emphasis upon the study of Halakhah is thoroughly understandable. It is fully consonant with the nature of Jewish religious experience and rooted in our collective existence. Without doubt, the Jew, like other people, confronts the Ribbono shel Olam as redeemer, benefactor, and judge. Primarily, however, he encounters Him as commander. Jewish sensibility is pervasively normative. The Jew is, first and foremost, a summoned being, charged with a mission, on the one hand, and directed by rules, on the other. The message addressed to him ranges from the comprehensive to the minute, but whatever its scope, it is normative in character."

Given this outlook, Rav Lichtenstein’s recommendation to a Centrist Orthodox audience comes as no surprise:

“When all is said and done, we should recognize and realize that what we share with the Rightist community far, far outweighs whatever divides us...[M]any in our camp no doubt find it easier to talk, perhaps even to work, with an intelligent secular colleague than with a Karliner chassid, forgetting that the pleasantries attendant upon passing the time of day cannot compare with a shared vision of eternity. Surely we need to recognize, and the point can hardly be overemphasized, that our basic affinity is with those—past, present or future—to whom tzelem E-lokim, malkhut Shamayim and avodat Hashem are the basic categories of human existence."

In relation to the remark about secular colleagues, I recently saw a Facebook thread among Modern Orthodox Jews on watching a certain television show with frequent sexual content.  Several if not most participants did not see this as assur. Thirty years ago, Rav Lichtenstein anticipated such a situation:  

"Sexual libertarianism, rising divorce rates, dubious conversions, and deviant definitions–all have combined to foster an exponential growth in the number of beclouded Jews. Their plight portends a dangerous national cleavage, on the one hand, and posits possible personal tragedy, on the other. Yet, despite its potentially alarming proportions, the problem has been treated by many with a complacent equanimity which is frightening in itself."

Some Jews might find the aforementioned quotations unexpected or even unsettling. Like his father-in-law, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, Rav Lichtenstein’s primary loyalty was to Torah and the increased fulfillment thereof. In a 1999 letter titled “Take Rav Soloveitchik at Full Depth,” written in response to the Rav’s portrayal at the inaugural Edah Conference, Rav Lichtenstein clarified the nature of his engagement with modernity:

“It is not enough to speak of engagement in the abstract. One must concurrently define the character and parameters of that engagement so as to determine what ramifications and conclusions can legitimately flow from it. In this context, it is critical to bear in mind that the Rav's essence was manifested not only in philosophical writings he authored, but in theological principles to which he was committed and, above all, in a rigorous halachic discipline, which was both his patrimony and his legacy. These, as the Rav's innermost being, were forged in the tradition of Brisk rather than in Berlin [Rav Soloveitchik earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin]; lamentably they are not sufficiently shared by significant segments of our contemporary community and its spokesmen. While innovative in some areas, the Rav was highly conservative with respect to the text and context of tefillah as traditionally constituted in its classical corpus and in the fabric of a shul. He was unstintingly tenacious in insisting upon the autonomy of Halacha and the rejection of historicism; in placing lamdut, in the realms of theory and practice both, at the epicenter of Jewish life and in predicating the authority of Hazal as its polestar."

Rav Lichtenstein honored this tradition with brilliance and constancy. May his words give clarity and strength.   


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